World Wide Mind

Books / by Michael Chorost /

For an author with cochlear implants, the merger of computer and brain, bytes and thoughts, has never felt far-fetched. In a brilliant new book, Michael Chorost makes his case: by making the internet a new nervous system for humanity, humans will also re-connect with one another in a profoundly new way.

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A DEAD BLACKBERRY

[H]uman nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love.—Plato, The Symposium

When my BlackBerry died I took it to a cell phone store in San Francisco’s Mission district. I handed it over to the clerk the way I would give my cat Elvis to the vet.

“JVM 523,” I said mournfully. When I’d woken up the screen was blank but for that cryptic error message.

The clerk called tech support while I wandered around the store,peering at cell phone covers and batteries. He beckoned me over ten minutes later.

“It’s dead,” he said.

“You can’t just reload the operating system?”

“They say not.”

“How can a software bug kill a BlackBerry?” I said. “It’s just code.”

He shrugged. He hadn’t been hired for his ability to answer philosophical questions. But, he told me, for fifty bucks they could send me a new one overnight.

“All right,” I said, and walked out, minus BlackBerry.

The stores were full of avocados and plantains, $15 knapsacks hanging from awnings, and rows of watches in grimy windows. Crinkly-faced women pushed kids in strollers and grabbed their hands to keep them from pulling no-brand socks out of cardboard boxes. The world, whole and complete.

Except for my email, and the Internet. Just me and my lone self-contained body. I missed my BlackBerry’s email, of course, but what I missed just as much was having the planet’s information trove at my fingertips. I couldn’t summon Google on the street and ask it questions. How high is this hill I’m climbing? What do the critics say about this movie? Where can I find camping equipment on Market Street? When is the next bus coming?

Most of all, I couldn’t ask it, “Who is this person?”

I had asked it that question a few months earlier while visiting Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf in Washington, D.C. I wanted to see how American Sign Language dealt with fractions and cosines. So I was taken to visit a math class.

The professor was blond and flamingo-slender, with a snub nose. She spoke with the distinctive lisp of a high-frequency hearing loss. It was a warm spring day, with breezes tumbling in through an open window. I soon saw how fractions were done. She signed the numerator using a one-handed code for the numbers 1 through 9, dropped her hand an inch, then signed the denominator. As she discussed slopes, she gestured them in midair in a lovely hand jive of math and motion.

The class handout gave me her name: Regina Nuzzo. I unholstered my BlackBerry, held it under the desk at an angle, called up Google, and stealthily typed her name into it. I scrolled down the results with the thumbwheel. Ph.D. in statistics from Stanford. Postdoc at McGill, on analyzing fMRI data. Progressive hearing loss. And she was a science writer, too. She had just done a story on hybrid cochlear implants. When I looked up she was sweeping her left hand in an arc, taking in all the students, tapping her thumb and index finger together. It was the ASL “do” sign, meaning, in combination with her tilted head and quizzical expression, “What shall we do now? What’s next?”
         
Now I knew her background, her history, her interests. It gave her depth, dimension, a local habitation, and a name. I looked at her, thinking: Wow, a deaf science writer. Just like me.

Nosy? Invasive? Perhaps just a little. But I was a visitor from the other side of the country. Knowing something about her would help me smooth my way into a conversation. Anyway, I figured the day was coming when it would be considered rude not to Google someone upon meeting them. One could discover mutual interests so much more quickly that way.

I went up to her after class to ask her about the complexities of teaching math in American Sign Language. It was easy to steer the conversation to our mutual interest in writing. Our conversation began that day, both by email and in person, and it has never stopped.

But when I was standing in the Mission District amidst the ruckus of faded awnings and shouting children, all that was in the past. I missed my BlackBerry. I kept reaching for the holster, expecting to feel the device’s rounded plastic edges and their slight warmth from my body. Forget your Blackberry, I told myself. Look about you. Pay attention to the sights and smells of the world.

I walked about, nosed into stores, and ate lunch at my favorite taqueria. But it troubled me how separate the two worlds of my experience were. My BlackBerry offered me an infinite supply of information and messages. The material world offered me infinite sensation and variety, and the faces and voices of my friends. It seemed altogether wrong that each world could be experienced only by excluding the other. Surely, I thought, there must be a way to bring them together.

THE PUSH-PULL DYNAMIC OF EVOLUTION

What’s among the top three most desired gifts for single men and women? A quality introduction to a prospective date. In fact, in recent research commissioned by Engage, the chance to meet someone special was more desired than a PlayStation, Xbox, or iPod.
—From a spam ad for an online dating website, sent December 20, 2006.

In 2006 a spam email informed me that among single men and women, “the chance to meet someone special” just barely beat out the PlayStation, the Xbox, and the iPod. It was ridiculous enough to make me laugh out loud. But on reflection I decided that from the way people looked raptly at their screens and caressed their little keyboards, maybe it wasn’t quite as ridiculous as it sounded. I loved my BlackBerry. If someone had offered to implant it in me so I could skip the thumb scrolling and typing, I would have said, “Tell me more.”

I am already accustomed to implanted computers, because I have two. I am deaf and have a cochlear implant in each ear. Deafness is often caused by the loss of tiny filaments (called hair cells) in the inner ear. In a normal ear these filaments vibrate in response to sound and trigger the auditory nerves. I lost many of my hair cells before birth because my mother had had rubella, but I had enough hearing left to be able to use hearing aids. However, in 2001 my one good ear died completely. It happened in about four hours. No one knows why.

My cochlear implant substitutes for the lost hair cells by directly triggering the auditory nerves with implanted electrodes. A surgeon drilled an inch and a half into my skull, countersunk a ceramic-encased microchip behind my left ear, and threaded sixteen electrodes into my inner ear. Now an external device sitting on my ear picks up sound, digitizes it, and radios a stream of 1s and 0s through my skin to the microchip. The chip receives the radio signal with a tiny antenna and decides how to strobe the electrodes on and off. By choosing which electrodes to fire at any given moment, it makes my auditory nerves transmit sound information to my brain.

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